By 2nd Lt. Zach Anderson, 4th Air Force
/ Published July 06, 2010
MARCH AIR RESERVE BASE, CALIF. --
Every summer, I sit through a mandatory safety briefing on the "101 Critical Days of Summer." I listen to facts and figures galore, as well as stories featuring some Airman somewhere who didn't use proper operational risk management during a recreational activity, and wound up having some sort of safety mishap. Then, like many of us, I promptly go on my merry way, thinking, "That's too bad for 'Airman Snuffy,' but that will never happen to me!"
So far, I'd been right. I'd also been lucky.
Recently, however, my "lieutenant luck" ran out and I learned the hard way the importance of considering safety planning in all activities.
The day began with me convincing my wife, Renee, to go on a weekend hike. But not just any old nature trail, day-hike would do. No, that wasn't challenging enough for me. Instead, I picked an obstacle that was more along the lines of a mountaineering expedition.
Our destination? Straight up 10,064 feet to the summit of Mt. San Antonio, aka, "Mt. Baldy," the "crowned jewel of the San Gabriel Mountains."
Of course, the fact I have absolutely no experience in mountain hiking was of no concern. In my mind, I was no ordinary "flatlander." I was a hardy outdoorsman, born and raised on the unforgiving, rough-and-tumble Oklahoma prairie! I had seen "Jeremiah Johnson" six times! Not only that, I had once been through a land navigation briefing. Heck, a couple of times I'd even used a real compass! When it came to traversing rugged terrain, I knew what I was doing.
I prepared by packing what I considered to be essential wilderness survival items: two granola bars and a bag of beef jerky. Renee packed a sweatshirt and insisted on bringing a flashlight and extra water. I was mildly annoyed at these precaution because, as far as I was concerned, that was all just extra weight we'd be lugging on our epic push to the summit.
At the trailhead, we ran into a park ranger who mentioned the route I had decided to take was "very strenuous."
"Yeah...strenuous for wimps," I thought to myself as I rolled my eyes.
The ranger then mentioned it was a very long trail and that we "wouldn't want to be stuck out there after dark."
We had gotten a late start on the day, but I wasn't concerned. I figured I knew better than the ranger how long it would take us to reach the summit and get back down. As I confidently began leading our charge up the mountain, I was positive we had plenty of daylight left.
A few thousand vertical feet later, the words "very strenuous" sounded like a top contender for the "Understatement of the Year Award."
Quickly, it became apparent my flatlander lungs were not accustomed to the thin mountain air, nor were my legs quite up to the challenge of this 10,000 foot Stairmaster from hell. When we finally staggered to the summit, I collapsed in exhaustion. Checking my watch, I realized it had taken much, much longer than I had anticipated. Furthermore, the biggest challenge was still ahead: we had to get back down!
We began carefully picking our way down the steep, sloping trail. The cold mountain wind whipped around us. Renee stopped to pull on her sweatshirt. I looked on with envy as I shivered in my T-shirt and shorts. My jerky and granola were long gone, I was low on water and the sunlight was beginning to fade. This was not a good situation.
We hurried down the trail, racing against the lengthening shadows. Suddenly, the rugged, unmarked path before us split into three different directions. I stared at the junction hopelessly, having no idea which path would lead us home.
At that point, I came to a morbid conclusion: "We are going to die on this mountain."
Okay, maybe dying was a bit extreme, but we didn't have any warm clothes or food and we were completely lost. The prospects of getting off the mountain before sundown were getting slimmer by the minute.
I was kicking myself for not taking those safety briefings to heart and for not conducting proper ORM before heading out on the hike. I hadn't planned ahead, packed proper gear or researched the trail.
This time, I was Airman Snuffy.
I pictured some squadron halfway across the country holding a safety briefing, their discussion centering on "Second Lieutenant Anderson and his severe lack of safety planning and preparation before going on a wilderness hike." I was beginning to understand just how important those safety briefings are and why we are required to attend them.
Desperate to keep moving downhill, my wife and I picked the trail that looked the most promising and continued our hopeless trek. Miraculously, our randomly chosen trail led us straight to one of the mountain's skiing areas.
Even more miraculously, there was a maintenance worker at the top of one of the chairlifts who graciously offered to give two lost hikers a ride down the mountain in his beat-up 4x4 sport utility vehicle. During the ride down, he mentioned that already this summer "several folks didn't plan for the hike and had to be rescued by helicopters." That easily could have been us.
The 45-minute ride down a ragged mountain fire road with abundant hairpin turns and drop-offs was one of the most terrifying and yet wonderful rides of my life. Finally, we were back to our car, hungry, cold and exhausted, but safe.
In the end, I was once again lucky. Renee and I didn't have to stay the night on the mountain, nor did we have to be rescued by park rangers in helicopters. Unlike some who might have found themselves in my position, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to learn from my mistake.
Ultimately, my day on the mountain taught me a painful lesson in the value of operational risk management and was a reminder of just how crucial it is to consider safety in all our activities. The briefings, safety discussions and training during the "101 Critical Days of Summer" campaign are all conducted for a reason.
And the next time I listen to a tale of an Airman Snuffy safety debacle, believe me, I'll be paying close attention.